A New York appeals court on Thursday rejected a request from President Trump to stay proceedings in a defamation suit filed by a former contestant on “The Apprentice” who has claimed that he sexually harassed her.
The ruling on Thursday is a legal setback for Trump, who is facing multiple lawsuits focused on allegations women have made against him as well as his public comments about those women. It could open him up to discovery in the case, although he could also file further appeals to try to delay proceedings.
Trump’s attorneys sought a temporary halt in the case filed by Summer Zervos — who has accused him of groping and forcibly kissing her — while they awaited word on their appeal of a judge’s ruling this year that Zervos’s defamation lawsuit could proceed. Zervos sued Trump for defamation after he denied her accusations, along with those of other women who accused him of unwanted sexual contact before he was elected president. He called them all “liars.”
Attorneys for the president have argued that he was expressing a political opinion and could not be sued in state court while in office. But New York Supreme Court Justice Jennifer G. Schecter dismissed these claims in an opinion issued March 20, writing: “No one is above the law.”
Trump appealed that decision not long after, saying she was mistaken in not dismissing or staying the case, and his attorneys sought to defer proceedings while the appeal is pending. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court denied that request on Thursday, describing it as seeking “a stay of the action pending hearing and determination of” Trump’s appeal of Schecter’s order.
Marc Kasowitz, an attorney for Trump, called the appeals court’s decision incorrect, citing an earlier case against President Bill Clinton that stemmed from a sexual harassment claim. Kasowitz wrote in an emailed statement that it was “completely and unjustifiably contrary to the stays the courts uniformly granted when deciding whether a lawsuit against President Clinton could proceed in federal court.”
“There is no valid reason in this case — in which plaintiff is seeking merely $3,000 in damages, and which plaintiff’s counsel has repeatedly insisted was brought for political purposes — for the Court not to grant the requested stay in order to take the time to first decide the threshold Constitutional issue that is at stake,” he continued.
Kasowitz said that the case raises what the U.S. Supreme Court has called an “important” and unresolved constitutional issue — whether the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause bars a state court lawsuit against a president while in office.
Mariann Meier Wang, an attorney for Zervos, noted Thursday that the appeals court ruling marked the second time a court has rebuffed the president’s attempt to stay the case, after Schecter also denied such a request.
“We look forward to proving Ms. Zervos’s claim that [Trump] lied when he maliciously attacked her for reporting his sexually abusive behavior,” Wang said in a statement.
Trump was also accused of defamation in a lawsuit filed last month by Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who said she had a consensual sexual relationship with the president a decade before he was elected.
After Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — released a sketch of a man she said threatened her to remain quiet about Trump in 2011, the president posted a tweet deriding “a nonexistent man” and called her story a “total con job,” which led to her defamation suit in federal court in Manhattan. She has also sued Trump seeking to void a deal she signed before the 2016 presidential election that paid her $130,000 to remain quiet about her allegations against him.
The ruling Thursday could be was unremarkable as a matter of law, but potentially consequential and significant for Trump, according to Stephen Gillers of New York University Law School.
Gillers said the ruling allows Zervos’s lawyers to proceed with pretrial discovery, which can include demands for documents and depositions, including of Trump. The trial judge, Gillers said, will have to decide whether to allow a Trump deposition and under what conditions, which could require Zervos’s lawyers to issue written questions.
Wang did not immediately respond to requests for comment about what her team would do next, including whether they would proceed with discovery or seek to depose Trump in the case. Gloria Allred, the high-profile women’s-rights attorney who had served as Wang’s co-counsel in the case before withdrawing in March, said in an interview last year that her team had intended to depose Trump if the case proceeded.
Allred said in a written statement that she was “very happy” with the court order.
“I think it is very important that President Trump provide answers in Summer’s civil defamation case through the discovery process a.s.a.p.” wrote Allred, who left the case in March, shortly after Schecter ruled it could proceed. Allred said at the time that her withdrawal had “nothing to do with the merits of [Zervos’s] case against President Trump.”
Material surfaced under New York’s broad rules of discovery can be made public unless a judge imposes an order to seal it. That is unlikely, according to Gillers. He said there is a strong presumption that anything that happens in court should be a matter of public record, and sealing orders are usually reserved for confidential information such as trade secrets and medical records.
But Gillers said Trump is likely to try to slow things down, possibly by seeking to appeal to the state’s highest court — the New York Court of Appeals — with a stay of any proceedings until that court decides. He said it would be unusual for that particular court to intervene at this stage. Trump could also seek a delay in federal court, citing some superior federal right because Trump is president, but “I’m not sure what that would be. I don’t think there is any,” Gillers wrote in an email.
Another option open to Trump, he said, would be to offer to settle the case.